Proton therapy

Proton beam therapy is coming to the NHS (image from Wikimedia Commons)

New radiotherapy techniques have hit the headlines in recent weeks, both for the right and the wrong reasons. Let’s take a closer look.

A boost for proton beam therapy

On the plus side, we were pleased to hear the Government announce last week that proton beam therapy will be introduced in England on the NHS.

At the moment, patients requiring proton beam therapy have to go abroad to receive it (paid for by the NHS). Up to 1,500 patients a year could benefit from this investment in radiotherapy technology – especially those with spinal cord tumours, sarcomas near the spine or brain, and some children’s cancers – which comes with a £150 million price tag.

Radiotherapy by any other name…

The Sunday Times recently ran a story (behind paywall) claiming that Health Secretary Andrew Lansley is putting cancer patients at risk by refusing to bring in Cyberknife radiotherapy machines into the NHS.

On the surface, this story seems alarming. We’re all too aware that radiotherapy services in the UK could do with improvement, and believe that thousands of cancer patients could be missing out on this potentially lifesaving treatment.

Throughout this Year of Radiotherapy we’ve been trying to raise awareness of the treatment, and our Voice For Radiotherapy petition gathered over 36,000 signatures from people demanding world-class radiotherapy here in the UK.

But we also believe it’s important to talk about technology rather than brand names.

Cyberknife and Gammaknife are brand names for a technique known as stereotactic radiotherapy which allows doctors to treat cancers that are too difficult to remove with surgery – especially brain tumours. It’s also known as radiosurgery, stereotactic ablative surgery (SABR) and stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT).

Although there are several Cyberknife and Gammaknife centres in the UK – including within the NHS – stereotactic radiotherapy technology is available more widely at many NHS radiotherapy units. So although a cancer centre may not provide named Cyberknife or Gammaknife treatment, it could still have the same (unbranded) technology.

We feel it is important to make this point clear, particularly in the light of articles such as the one in The Sunday Times.

In response to that particular article (behind paywall), the UK “Cancer Czar” Professor Sir Mike Richards pointed out that the piece

“gives the impression that the Health Secretary is standing in the way of this treatment, which is not the case at all. Stereotactic Body Radiotherapy (SBRT), of which Cyberknife is one brand, is already available to patients on the NHS in over a quarter of all radiotherapy centres in England, and the number of centres providing this treatment is increasing.”

There’s more information about Cyberknife, stereotactic body radiotherapy and stereotactic radiotherapy specifically for brain tumours on our CancerHelp UK website.

Radiotherapy is a lifesaving cancer treatment, and we welcome any advances in research and service provision. But it’s important that we focus on the technology itself and the benefits for patients, not just the name of a particular company.